Along with the recent disappointing news about press freedom on college campuses comes one bright spot in an unlikely place—the state of North Carolina, where FIRE has fought battle after battle on behalf of liberty. Craven Community College in coastal New Bern was considering wresting editorial control over its student newspaper from its own students because the paper ran a sex advice column that offended some in the community—but thanks to pressure from students and intervention from FIRE and the Student Press Law Center, it has chosen instead to respect the independence of the paper.
Both students and administrators at Craven realized an obvious truth: college students are adults, and as such are full participants in the nation’s polity. Exclusive of the legal and constitutional concerns about administrative suppression of student speech at public institutions (and don’t worry, FIRE will address those as well), there can be few compelling moral justifications in a free society for a state official to censor a newspaper run by adult college students. It should be obvious that placing an administrator in the role of a Soviet-style “political officer” to monitor the activity of a student group is not something that American citizens should support (and with their tax dollars, no less). College administrators are certainly public figures when it comes to the lives of students; why then should they have control over the only reporters who are likely to report on their actions? Even the U.S. president does not have such a power.
At most of the student newspapers I’ve dealt with in my time at FIRE, the paper is funded through student-fee funding allocations, and the fact that these allocations must be made regardless of viewpoint leaves would-be administrative censors without an objective justification for censorship. A smaller number, like the paper at issue in Hosty v. Carter, get some funding directly from an academic department like that of journalism, which would presumably be filled with people who have good reason not to teach budding reporters that censorship is acceptable (and in these cases, university policies often ensure a newspaper’s editorial independence). Either way, the next case that FIRE gets involving a college administrator’s censoring a newspaper article that is complimentary to an administrator or that makes the school look good will be the first. If you want to know what’s really going on at a university, would you choose to read the student-run newspaper or the administration-run alumni magazine? Yes, student newspapers can be inaccurate (just as can major media outlets), but those who want to know the truth about the state of a campus will always get more accurate information out of students than out of those whose jobs depend on the answer being “Oh, things are just fine.”